Posted tagged ‘websites’

A web of confusion

January 28, 2011

As I have noted previously, these days the main ‘shop window’ in which a university presents its programmes, facilities and services to a wider world is its worldwide web homepage. Anyone wanting to make contact with it is likely to look there first, and therefore it is very important that the institution presents itself well. A few weeks ago I had a look at the Irish university websites, and on the whole I did not think they were well designed. Yesterday I investigated the home pages of 14 British universities. I am inclined to conclude that, like their Irish counterparts, they mostly don’t get it right.

Here are some of the key problems.

First, what almost all (except one, to which I return in a moment) get terribly wrong is the sheer busy-ness of the page. Generally it is full of small print and densely formatted text, with a vast array of links that are not usually organised in a user-friendly way. It is my view that a homepage should not give more than nine or ten clickable links, and that these should be presented in a visually accessible way. In fact, most have dozens. For example, this university gives you 57 links on the homepage, not organised into any coherent groups. This world famous university has 62, though admittedly the links are clustered in a somewhat more logical way. The one that gets it absolutely right is the University of Warwick, with only nine links on the homepage.

Secondly, almost no university seems to be able to resist the idea that it should publish self-congratulatory news stories on the homepage. Of course this is simply a form of PR, but not a useful one. It is not an effective way of publishing press releases (journalists don’t scour university websites looking for these), while those who go to a university website will almost always find them a distraction. They serve absolutely no purpose, except in very rare cases of stories that people may genuinely want to have brought to their attention.

Thirdly, most of the websites were very hard to navigate. I asked a friend to look at each of them and try to get as much information as possible about undergraduate examinations, including exam dates, initially without using the ‘search’ function. In the case of three of them he was unable to get any information at all by following links. Interestingly, in one of these even the search function didn’t help, while in the other two it brought so many results that it took him ages to work out which of them was of use to him. Seven of the 14 universities seemed to publish no information about examination dates (or if they did he couldn’t find it). In the case of only one university did the hunt for exam information turn out to be easy and logical.

Finally, the design of most websites goes against the most obvious principle: keep it simple. Don’t cover the page with writing and images, and don’t make the following of links too complex. On the homepage, keep individual items apart from each other with plenty of white space, and only include information that will clearly be helpful to those accessing the page. Of the 14 websites I looked at, five even put so much on the page that it forces the user to scroll down to find key information, an absolute no-no in the design of internet home pages.

It seems to me that all this is another sign that many universities don’t have a proper understanding of the key objectives of PR, and in particular that they don’t really appreciate the potential and pitfalls of websites. Mostly they have not properly considered what they want these sites to do for them, and therefore they don’t knowhow they should design them to achieve their purposes. Universities deal with very complex areas of knowledge, but when it comes to the internet they should, above all, keep it simple.

The web presence

November 23, 2010

These days, most people who have an interest in a university or college, in whatever context, first encounter it on the internet. A university’s home page on the web is, usually, its main opportunity to make a good first impression.

Today I needed to access all Ireland’s university websites to find two pieces of information; one of these would be very relevant to potential student applicants, the other to a potential philanthropist. I have to say most Irish universities do not come out of this well. Typically their home pages are far too busy and contain too much information under too many headings. The main function of the home page, in my view, is to act as a map that will direct a visitor to where they want to go, and that will do so in a reasonably attractive way. Typically this task is best performed if the page gives maybe nine or ten different options, which can then move the visitor closer to the information they need in a user-friendly way. In fact, Irish universities typically provide around 35-40 clicking choices on the home page, often in confusing separate sections on the page, and often offered in very small print with densely written sub-texts. One university gives the visitor 45 choices. Three universities also do not manage to contain all the links and clicks on a single screen, so that the visitor has to scroll down to see all of it, which on a home page is an absolute no-no.

The one Irish university website that pretty much gets it right is NUI Galway, which has a clean, uncluttered and user-friendly home page, with a reasonable and manageable set of links. The next best is my own former bailiwick, DCU. The others are all in varying degrees a nightmare for the first time visitor.

Apart from Galway’s rather excellent effort, a good model of how to do it is the website of US university MIT.

One hint I would give to university web designers is to keep breathless news announcements to a minimum. Visitors to a website are not really likely to be there in order to enjoy the latest propaganda messages. A well designed news site linked from the home page, and kept up to date, is a much better bet.


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